A Canadian federal agency has denied funding to a science-education researcher partly because of its doubts about the theory of evolution.

Brian Alters, director of the Evolution Education Research Centre at McGill University in Montreal, had proposed a study of the effects of the popularization of intelligent design — the idea that an intelligent creator shaped life — on Canadian students, teachers, parents, administrators and policy-makers.

At a public lecture on 29 March, Alters revealed excerpts from the rejection letter he received from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). The letter stated that, among its reasons for rejection, the committee felt there was inadequate “justification for the assumption in the proposal that the theory of evolution, and not intelligent-design theory, was correct.”

“It illustrates how the misunderstanding of evolution and intelligent design can go to all levels of Canadian society,” says Alters. David Green, director of McGill University's Redpath natural-history museum, adds: “I was quite surprised that such an opinion could be tendered by a high-powered granting agency.”

The SSHRC is the top social-sciences funding agency in Canada. Spokeswoman Eva Schacherl says its funding decisions are based on the comments submitted by a committee of peer reviewers, and that the council cannot comment on the sentence in question. “We rely on the expertise of our committees to make recommendations,” she says.

Susan Bennett, an English professor at the University of Calgary in Alberta and chair of the SSHRC committee, could not be reached for comment by the time Nature went to press.

The maximum value of Alters's requested grant was Can$40,000 (US$34,000). He has received funding from the SSHRC before; for instance, his centre was awarded a Can$175,000-grant to study the understanding of biological evolution in Islamic societies.

Jennifer Robinson, associate vice-principal for communications at McGill, says the university will ask the council to review its decision. “In our view it is a factual error,” she says. “The theory of evolution is a well-established science, and intelligent design is a religious belief.”

Philip Sadler, a board member of the centre and director of science education at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is more philosophical. “If he was trying to answer the question as to whether all this popularization had had an impact, he just saved the government $40,000,” says Sadler. “He found the evidence without doing the study.”